This weekend was filled with many great things for the New York Yankees. To start, they swept the new-look Cleveland Guardians, and proved that regardless of the name and uniform change, this is the same Cleveland team that cannot seem to beat the Yankees–especially in New York. Then, they saw the return of their $324 million dollar ace pitcher, with Gerrit Cole’s dominant performance on Sunday. Heck, even Gleyber Torres finally showed up, driving in the game-winning run on Saturday.
Point is, the Yankees that general manager Brian Cashman believed in all offseason seemed to finally come to fruition for the rest of us nonbelievers. But the one takeaway that has my attention is the return of DJ LeMahieu.
LeMahieu has been somewhat of an elusive player since signing his discounted six-year extension to stay with the Yankees. Last year was a down year for him, where he slashed .268/.349/.362. Average numbers, but not what the Yankees and fans had come to expect from LeMahieu. Further, he seemed to join the likes of his teammates, and increased his strikeout rate to 13%.
Still, nothing compared to his slugging teammates of Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, and Joey Gallo, but LeMahieu was never a power hitter, so should not be striking out at an increased rate. Rather, he was signed to be the old school table-setter: get on base for the heavy hitters to drive him in. Well, it seems like the LeMahieu of 2020 has returned, as he is off to a torrid start, currently slashing .333/.414/.510 to begin the young season. With April almost complete, that is a promising sign that perhaps last year was indeed an outlier for him.
Further, in this weekend’s first sweep of the Yankees’ season, he went 5-for-11, including a 3-for-4 performance on Sunday, where he drove in three.
The Yankees have famously become a three true outcome franchise: walk, home run, or strikeout. That formula has led them to many disappointing playoff runs, when it appears as though strikeouts are the only outcome that truly endures. Which is why the return of LeMahieu is impressive. Unlike his teammates, LeMahieu can put the ball in play, as he strikes out at a lower rate than his counterparts, a key component for a successful team.
Currently, the Yankees have nine starter position players for only eight positions. This has created a “rest roulette” as Michael Kay calls it and jokes about on his radio show. All kidding aside, it does create an interesting conundrum.
The depth of players is beneficial when injuries inevitably occur, but currently, this strategy has led to resting a starter every day, and likely insulting some players that believe they should be starting. LeMahieu is making this daily lineup selection even more challenging for Boone as at this point, LeMahieu should be a staple in the lineup. He is currently the hottest hitter on the Yankees. What is even crazier than his current hot streak, is that LeMahieu is likely even better than his current stats suggest. His expected batting average, a stat that takes into account how hard he is hitting the ball, sits at .354, 20 points higher than his actual batting average.
The season is young, but all signs point to the return of the beloved 2019-2020 LeMahieu, where he was an MVP candidate, and won the batting title in the abbreviated 2020 season when he hit .364. At this point, LeMahieu should be an everyday starter, and know before he even leaves for the ballpark that he is a starter because there is no reason he shouldn’t be.
This weekend was exactly what the Yankees needed: a successful performance from their offense and ace, and they got both. Though is Cole even their ace anymore with what Nestor Cortes has been providing? Regardless, these are the Yankees that make the MLB power rankings. Now the Yankees will be tested once more, as their Achilles heel Baltimore Orioles come to town for a three-game series set to begin Tuesday.
Here’s hoping manager Aaron Boone leaves LeMahieu in the lineup, allowing him to continue his hot streak.